Play Times and Pacing

I watched, the other night, someone speed run through Unlimited Saga.

This is a standard mission screen in Unlimited Saga.

While the game was in Japanese, I could basically tell their tactics.  First of all, they avoided almost all battles.  Secondly, they got skills that seemed to emphasize speed.  Finally, they used two main tactics – knife skills with a high chance of a deadly strike, and a specific axe technique which tends to kill the final boss quickly.  The player finished the game in about an hour and a half.

To my surprise, it was really satisfying to watch.  The final boss has about four phases, and you can only kill it by emptying the Life point meter.  The boss tends to use attacks which empty your life point meter.  Running out of LP is death in the game, and the main damage dealer had basically six LP left when the final boss died.  Each round took off about three LP from the main damage dealer, so the player was basically cutting it as close as they could.

Back in the SNES era, some RPGs advertised the playtime as a selling feature, and this popped up in the PS1 era too.  Unfortunately, some of these games were simply padded out with grinding, boring filler, slow progression, or drawn out plot points.  Many early RPGs and modern RPGs aim for something closer to a 20 – 40 hour gameplay time.  Certain massive RPGs are a lot closer to 80 – 120 hours.

Looking back at the amount of grinding in early games, I think that there’s a sort of – sliding scale for me.  I don’t mind a grindy game, but I’m a lot less tolerant of a grindy game that has other flaws.  Unlimited Saga is grindy, and rewards people who want to grind with better skills and stats as well as a chance for an amazing skill or two.  At the same time, you can, with enough skill, finish the game incredibly quickly.  There’s practically nothing in Unlimited Saga that forces you to go slow.

So, let’s look at Dragon Quest VII in comparison.  Dragon Quest VII is much less flawed than Unlimited Saga.  Most of the mechanics are transparent compared to Unlimited Saga’s bizarre interlocked systems.  Dragon Quest VII offers a smaller cast of characters compared to Unlimited Saga’s fairly large cast.  Dragon Quest VII offers storylines which, in my opinion, tend to have a greater emotional impact on the player.

Even if you know the game inside and out, you're probably going to take at least 45 minutes to get to the first battle in Dragon Quest VII.

Both games allow you to do a lot of grinding to improve your character, and you can break both games to allow you to be ridiculously strong.  Both games have certain skills which are more powerful than others, however, I think you’d need more time to make Dragon Quest VII’s characters incredibly powerful.

However, in my mind, Unlimited Saga, for all the flaws, is the game I would prefer to try to play. Dragon Quest VII’s worst feature, in my mind, is the pacing.  You are forced to play many dungeons twice (to get the shards to progress.)  You are forced through a fairly long segment to even get to fight a monster.  You are forced through another long segment to be able to change your job class – and doing this quickly is required to max out your ability to use said classes.  Due to this need to quickly do the events, you’re basically spending almost the entire early game rushing as quickly as you can through every road block in your way.  This means that a completionist player is spending most of the early game striving to get out of it as quickly as they can.

Are long play times good?  I think a long game allows the game to allow you a wide range of areas, plots, and space to explore.  It also opens the world to allow the player to grind or experiment.  Playing a long game can be a satisfying epic, even if you don’t finish the game.  In fact, many of the long games that I’ve played really hit their stride in the middle of the game, and coast to an ending on hurried gameplay.

Are short play times good?  I think short games can be a jewel box of a game.  Chrono Trigger works like that for me.  It has a number of well done set pieces, the ability to feel powerful, the ability to show off skill, and a neatly orchestrated ending.  In a game twice that long, I don’t think the game would’ve been as fun to play.

In the end, I think it is the pacing that makes or breaks a game.  A badly done short game leaves the player frustrated and constantly hitting up against the limitations of the game.  A badly done long game leaves the player frustrated and often bored.  Even good games can have bad sections to them.

Some people loathe long games, or prefer games that they are certain they can “finish.”  Since I am a completionist player, I have found some games annoying since I cannot say that I will see everything I’d want to in the game.  However, I don’t mind leaving a game unfinished when I’ve seen enough of the game to be content.  For me, the play time doesn’t matter, as long as there’s enough of the play time that is satisfying, and nothing that ruins the rest of the game.

I suspect other players feel differently.

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